Everyone knows the pleasure and joy they receive when they are fortunate enough to share a meal with people they love and enjoy. Conversely, most of us have also suffered through a tension filled meal and experienced the dissatisfaction and indigestion that can be a result. But how is it possible we walk away from the table after a relaxing meal feeling satisfied and step away from a stress filled meal with a stomach ache? The answer lies in our age old survival instincts.
Our body’s autonomic nervous system has two divisions- the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is responsible for digestion, fuel storage, rest and recuperation, and circulation to non-vital organs. This is the system in control when you are relaxed and have time to enjoy your life.
The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for your flight or fight response. When your body perceives a danger or is stressed, your sympathetic nervous system diverts blood and energy away from your non essential organs and speeds up your heart rate. It also increases adrenaline and blood pressure. While your body is in a heighten state of arousal, it is unable to focus on non- essential tasks like digestion. It has to focus on helping you escape the danger. Consider this. If it is a question of being eaten by a bear or digesting you food, where do you think your body will put the most energy?
Most of us are not running from bears on a regular basis. However, our body doesn’t recognize the difference between the stress of eating in a tense business lunch meeting and the need to escape a charging bear. In both cases, our sympathetic nervous system takes over, diverting blood from the non-essential task of digestion to focus on safety. I know we don’t always have the luxury of controlling who shares our meals- sometimes, we have to join drunk uncle Tom for Thanksgiving dinner or we are stuck trying to explain those disappointing fourth quarter numbers to the boss. However, we can try to control how we respond to the stress. Sometimes just naming for yourself that this meal is going to be stressful, taking five deep breaths before starting and focusing on chewing your food well can make a big difference in how you feel when you step away from the table.